Étienne Cabet (1788-1856), the son of a master cooper of revolutionary sympathies, attended the Dijon lycée and qualified as an advocate. He joined the Fédération Bourguignonne in the Hundred Days and defended local Bonapartists during the White Terror. Moving to Paris he got to know Lafayette, joined and broke with the charbonnerie and came to share the Orleanism of another Parisian associate, Laffitte. Involved in the Restoration liberal electorial organizationAide-toi, le ciel t'aidera and the July Days in Paris, he served briefly as government prosecutor in Corsica.
A left wing opposition deputy for Dijon in 1831, Cabet's critical account of the limited consequences of the July Revolution led to five prosecutions. He became general secretary of the Association libre de l'Education du Peuple, formed by students and graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique to offer evening classes, medical services and a labor exchange to workers. Cabet also edited their paper, Le Fondateur, and in July 1833 began Le Populaire, unique because it was partly owned and written by artisans themselves. Its ten francs annual subscription was a fraction that of any other paper and in less than two months its circulation was twelve thousand. Seventy subscription groups and reading circles for artisans were set up. It was also distributed in Paris by twenty four public hawkers. In 1834 Cabet received the severest sentence ever imposed for press offenses, two year's jail, a fine of 4,400 francs and four year's subsequent civil death. He preferred exile and spent the next five years writing furiously in England.
Amnestied in 1839, Cabet returned to Paris. In 1840 he published Voyage en Icarie which encapsulated his new, intensely moral communist philosophy. The two volumes were reprinted five times up to 1848, but subsequently neglected. The distant island of Icaria was seen through the eyes of a young English lord, Carisdall. Icaria dispensed with the social evils of early nineteenth-century capitalism by eliminating all competition and private ownership. Any foreign trade was conducted by the community and domestic commerce disappeared. There was no money. Everyone contributed to the economy and in equal measure drew from it. But Icaria did not look back to an idealized artisan society; it had a modern, machine-age economy, with railways and canals.
Icarie was the perfect representative and direct democracy. The rights of the community took complete precedence over the demand of the individual. Cabet elaborated on the egalitarian aspects of Icarian social organization, from the types of housing, furniture and food, to the system of education. His utopianism was entirely bound up with an Enlightenment-inspired confidence in the preeminent influence of reason developed through education and the rejection of revolution.
In March 1841 Le Populaire reappeared. By 1846, with a circulation of 4,500, it was outselling other radical papers. Each copy probably had about twenty-five readers. It was written in simple language, as was Cabet's widely-circulated annual Almanach. Three-quarters of Le Populaire's shareholders were artisans. Cabet soon became the acknowledged leader of a worker's movement, Le Société pour fonder l'Icarie (the Icarians), which was rather ironical in view of his initial belief in social harmony and rejection of confrontation. By 1844 there were about 100,000 Icarians. Paris and Lyon were the two main centers, with groups in seven-eight departments. Most supporters were traditional artisans; only about 4% were middle class. Icarianism had a particular appeal to threatened tradesmen such as cabinet-makers, textile-workers, and shoe-makers. Only three of the twenty-two cities where there were subscribers to Le Populaire were modern industrial centers. Icarianism spread through word-of-mouth and the vast stream of publications. There were neither mass meetings nor a sophisticated bureaucracy.
In the 1840s Cabet took up a new cause, women's rights. Religion replaced the idea of class struggle, with Jesus representing the suffering workers. Cabet's Le Vrai Christianisme sold 2,000 copies in twenty days and helped to retain some of his bourgeois adherents. Cabet also espoused the notion of a model community. Although some former Fouerierists were won over to Cabet, many Icarians left the movement. Nearly 30% of the subscribers of Le Populaire in November 1846 had withdrawn a year later and the paper began to print only one edition a week in April 1847.
Cabet launched a project for the establishment of a community in association with the English utopian, Owen. Only sixty-nine Icarians agreed to set off, alarmed by Cabet's autocratic attitudes. Each had to supply six hundred francs towards a homestead of 320 acres in the Red River area, but it emerged that Texas, not the land agent with whom they were negotiating, owned some of the land. On the eve of the February Revolution Cabet was charged with swindling would-be-settlers.
Cabet urged Icarians to support the new republic and turned his back on a group of his followers who tried to create up a model community in France itself. He set up a club, the Société fraternelle centrale, which became the largest and most influential of the many clubs at the time, holding meetings which attracted up to 5,000 people. The highest point of the revolution for Cabet was the demonstration of March 17, when 150,000 people gathered to demand that elections for a constituent assembly be delayed in order to convert the majority to vote republican.
Cabet's name was removed from Ledru-Rollin's list of candidates and
Icarians were hounded. Cabet meanwhile continued to deplore
violence and to think once more of emigration, now to the Mormon
village of Nauvoo, Illinois. He had no role in the demonstrations
of May 15, or the June Days. The day after Louis Napoleon's
election as president, Cabet set sail for America. Icarainism had
collapsed in France, and he hoped to rescue the American venture.
However, in 1850 he was forced to return to answer charges of
mismanagement. During 1851 he joined Leroux and Blanc to found
La République populaire et sociale, but the coup
d'état forced it to close. Cabet found little consolation in
the Icarian producer-cooperatives in Lyon and elsewhere in France.
He returned to America, quarrelled with the colony at Nauvoo, where
colonists disliked his authoritarian attitudes, ad in 1855 moved to
another experiment in St. Louis, where he died shortly afterwards.
Nauvoo survived until the end of the century.
Pamela M. Pilbeam
Cabet, E. La Révolution de 1830 et la situation présente, Paris, 1831.
Cabet, E. Le vrai christianisme suivant Jésus-Christ, Paris, 1846.
Cabet, E. Voyage en Icarie [Voyage et aventures de Lord Villiam Carisdall En Icarie. Traduit de l'anglais de Francis Adams par Th. Dufruit] 2 vols, Paris, 1840.
Johnson, C.H., Utopian Communism in France: Cabet and the Icarians 1839-51 Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1974.
JGC revised this file (http://www.ohiou.edu/~chastain/ac/cabet.htm) on November 4, 2005
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